‘Situation at prison is beyond serious’

Inside one of the buildings at HMP Northumberland.
Inside one of the buildings at HMP Northumberland.

Grave concerns about safety at HMP Northumberland have been raised by prison staff – with one guard fearing it will only be a matter of time before someone is killed.

In damning claims about life at the Acklington-based unit, a number of workers have contacted the Herald to say that morale is low and staffing levels are ‘down to the bone’ following cuts.

Worried officers say they face a battle against the smuggling in of drugs and phones, with one source saying that inmates have access to more mobiles than are in an 02 shop.

The comments were sparked after a guard was attacked by a prisoner towards the end of last month.

Sodexo Justice Services, which has run the Category C unit since December 2013, described the incident as an assault and said the guard in question did not require medical attention. But a number of workers at the site, who wanted to remain anonymous, have said this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Our sources claim that the guard had a homemade knife held to his throat, was taken hostage and had his keys taken off him.

They add that this has led to locks being changed at the prison, with one employee claiming this has cost more than £1.5million.

Speaking to the Herald, one member of staff said: “We are heading for an iceberg and I fear for my colleagues. It is only a matter of time before somebody is badly hurt or killed. The situation is dangerous for staff, prisoners and the community at large.”

Sodexo has stood by its previous statement about the assault and said that it is now the subject of a police investigation. The company admitted that, as a precautionary measure, it is replacing some locks in specific areas of the prison. The firm did not comment on the cost of the scheme, but said it is taking appropriate measures to maintain safety and security at the site, which ‘remain our top priority’.

Yesterday, Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery met prisons minister Andrew Selous MP and he is due to meet HMP Northumberland director Tony Simpson today. Mr Lavery said: “The situation at the prison has gone beyond serious and following recent events has become a grave concern to my constituents and others in the region.

“Action needs to be taken due to the alarming nature of incidents that have been raised with me by members of staff, family and the public, some of which have already been reported in the press. The safety of staff, prisoners and the general public must be of paramount importance. The current staff shortages and poor staff morale are not acceptable.”

A Sodexo spokesman added: “Mr Simpson looks forward to meeting Mr Lavery face-to-face to discuss his concerns. Mr Lavery has been invited to visit the prison.

“We are running a review of staffing arrangements, which was commissioned before these recent incidents took place.”

Berwick MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan has taken Mr Selous to the site so he can understand the issues she has raised with him. She said: “The numbers of staff in the prison are above the National Offender Management Service number, but the prison’s design and its large acreage means it is more difficult to manage some of the prisoner issues. I will ensure the minister is aware of incidents and they are investigated.”